By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE country’s top judge has lamented the government’s failure so far to appoint a substantive Chief Justice, claiming that such a blight has proven to be a “tremendous challenge” for the judiciary in making any long-term plans for the future.
Acting Chief Justice Vera Watkins, speaking at the opening on the 2019 legal year, said she has been placed in a “tenuous position” given the government’s silence on the appointment, adding that it makes her unsure as to “whether I will be sitting in this chair later on today or tomorrow morning”.
She also regretted that there had been no appointment of a substantive Chief Justice for eight months, citing the amount of time it took for former Chief Justice Stephen Isaacs, who died recently, to be appointed to the substantive post after his predecessor, Sir Hartman Longley left that post to become President of the Court of Appeal.
In doing so, ACJ Watkins echoed similar sentiments raised by Bahamas Bar Association President Kahlil Parker, who said the “proliferation of acting judicial appointments” has been a “deleterious effect on both the perceived and the actual independence of the judiciary, which compromises its ability to function as a check and balance against the other two branches of government”.
He said the Bahamas Bar Association “will not silently abide the invisible tether” ACJ Watkins’ and “other acting appointments represent and represented upon our Chief Justice and other justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal”.
Prior to former Chief Justice Isaacs, the country's last substantive chief justice was Sir Hartman, who was appointed in 2015. In late December 2017, Sir Hartman was sworn in as President of the Court of Appeal. Since that time, there was no substantive Chief Justice until July of last year when former Chief Justice Isaacs was appointed. However, Chief Justice Isaacs died three weeks later.
ACJ Watkins was sworn in to act as Chief Justice in early September.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis said the country will know in “very short order” who will be appointed to the post of substantive Chief Justice. However, the prime minister was tight-lipped on when the pick would be made, telling The Tribune he did not want to commit to a timeline and that it would be dealt with at the appropriate time.
“There are names that have been moving through my head, but I have not moved them yet from my head to any paper,” Dr Minnis told The Tribune.
On Tuesday, ACJ Watkins noted that in January of last year, former Chief Justice Isaacs presided over the ceremony to mark the opening of the legal year, and under circumstances similar to hers, the late Chief Justice Isaacs was acting at the time.
And Wednesday, she said, “I am sitting in the same chair and presiding over the opening ceremony in the capacity of acting Chief Justice”.
“The fact that there was no appointment of a Chief Justice for a period of eight months, together with the untimely passing of former Chief Justice Isaacs and the fact that the judiciary is still without a substantive Chief Justice, has been a tremendous challenge as it is difficult for the judiciary to make any long term plans for the future,” ACJ Watkins said.
“The indisputable fact is that while it may be so that I am sitting in this chair as acting Chief Justice at this moment, I am not certain as to whether I will be sitting in this chair later on today or tomorrow morning. As a result of the tenuous position in which I find myself, it may be a futile exercise to make any long-term plans for the judiciary”.
Meanwhile, Mr Parker said Chief Justice Watkins has the “unenviable task of projecting aspirations for the year from a Constitutional post” which she has “no way of knowing whether she will continue to hold tomorrow”.
“As a Bar we have been at pains to demonstrate to the public why it is that the proliferation of acting judicial appointments has a deleterious affect on both the perceived and the actual independence of the judiciary, which compromises its ability to function as a check and balance against the other two branches of our government,” he said.
“…The Bahamas Bar Association will not silently abide the invisible tether which your, and the other acting appointments represent and represented upon our Chief Justice and other justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. While it appears that some may not appreciate why this is important, they ought to reasonably be guided by those of us who do understand”.